Most recently updated on July 20, 2021
Originally posted on March 25, 2021
Texas is one big state. Exactly how big?
For starters, Texas is the second largest state in the United States, behind only Alaska.
Its 268,000 square miles also makes it the biggest state in the continental United States, well ahead of California’s 163,000 square miles.
The state is 773 miles west to east and 801 miles north to south at its widest points.
That means it takes more than 11 hours to drive across the Lone Star State from the New Mexico border to the Louisiana border.
It takes about the same amount of time to drive from Amarillo in the Texas Panhandle to Brownsville at the state’s tip along the Gulf of Mexico.
Texas’ population matches its acreage.
Its 29 million residents make it the second most populous state, behind only California. Texas has five of the top 12 most populous cities in the country with Houston leading the way in fourth place with 2.3 million people.
The state’s population is listed as 41 percent white and 40 percent Hispanic, the second highest of any state, trailing only New Mexico. Another 12 percent is listed as Black with 5 percent Asian.
Texas also has a median age of about 35 years, the third youngest among the states.
In its early history Texas was inhabited by Paleo-Indians who hunted mammoths beginning 10,000 years ago. It was ruled by France and Spain after 1500 before Mexico laid claim to the land. That reign lasted until 1836 when Texas became an independent republic sitting between the United States and Mexico. It was admitted as a U.S. state in 1845.
At first, cattle and beef were the main industry. Then, cotton farming took hold. However, the state really exploded in 1901 when oil was discovered at Spindletop, a community near Beaumont on the Gulf Coast. Oil rigs began popping up everywhere.
Today, Texas leads all states in oil production. Its 1.7 billion barrels per year is more than the next nine states combined. Texas is also first in natural gas, producing 24 percent of the nation’s supply, ahead of Pennsylvania’s 20 percent. We’ll see plenty of evidence of Texas’ oil power on our drive today.
All that fossil fuel does exact a price. Texas emits more carbon dioxide by far than any state.
Ironically, Texas is also number one in wind power. Three of the top 10 largest wind farms in the world are located here. We’ll see some of that emerging clean energy industry before the sun sets today, too.
Texas is also the only state with its own self-contained power grid. That means it controls its electricity-producing facilities and doesn’t rely on another state. That independence is a source of pride in the Lone Star State, but it exacted a price in February 2021.
Starting on February 13, Texas experienced its coldest weather since 1989. That not only sent demand for electricity skyrocketing, it also chilled natural gas wells, blocked pipes and froze wind turbines and coal piles. The biggest problem was the disruption in the distribution of natural gas, the state’s number one energy source.
All that reduced the amount of electricity the state’s power grid could produce at a time when the need was exploding. And Texas had nowhere else to turn for help.
Officials at the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ErCOT), which oversees the state’s power grid, said their system came within minutes, if not seconds, of a statewide blackout. To avoid that scenario, ErCOT implemented rolling blackouts in different parts of the state to keep demand under control.
However, some areas ended up without power for days due to damaged equipment, the need to restore electricity to some areas manually and other reasons.
There are calls now for Texas to restructure its power grid system as extreme weather is hitting the planet more often because of climate change. Governor Greg Abbott has directed the state Legislature to deal with the state’s electricity-producing system during their current session.
Energy is not the only strong component of the Texas economy.
The high-tech industry is growing with companies such as Dell, Texas Instruments and Compaq making their home here.
In addition, Texas is first in cement production as well as in the manufacturing of chemical products such as fertilizer. There is also a large commercial fishing industry thanks to the Gulf of Mexico.
A lot to digest on Day 6, so let’s get going.
We motor out of El Paso on Interstate 10 on today’s virtual journey, zipping past the border towns we visited yesterday.
We’ll be on this freeway for more than two hours before we veer off into north-central Texas.
Interstate 10 is the southernmost cross country freeway in the United States. It’s only one of three that travels from Pacific coast to Atlantic coast. The other two are Interstate 80 and Interstate 90.
More than an hour and a half into our drive, we cross from the Mountain Time Zone to the Central Time Zone and coast into Van Horn. The community of nearly 2,000 people is actually the westernmost incorporated city in Texas, and perhaps the country, on Central Time.
Van Horn has been around since the 1850s when the town was established along the San Antonio-El Paso Overland Mail Route. The arrival of the Texas and Pacific Railway in 1881 helped spur a little growth, but Van Horn has existed pretty quietly since then.
The city is probably best known as a stopping point along one of the popular routes to Carlsbad Caverns National Park an hour and a half away in New Mexico. It’s estimated that 10,000 vehicles pass through Van Horn on a daily basis on their way to the caverns and other destinations.
Although it’s farther from the Mexico border than El Paso, Van Horn officials do deal with border crossing issues. In late March 2021, local law enforcement agencies agreed to work together because of the increase in incidents of human smuggling. In late May, the mayor declared a state of emergency in her town due to the “elevated risk” of exposure to COVID-19 variants related to human trafficking. The day before the announcement, the Border Patrol reported that 115 undocumented people had been found in Van Horn in a single day.
However, what places Van Horn on our map today is healthcare services.
Until 2019, Dr. John E. Garner of Van Horn was the only physician in this 11,000-square-mile area of Texas, seeing patients in the only hospital within 100 miles. His coverage area is about the size of Maryland.
Van Horn is not the only rural location in the country lacking proper medical services.
The Washington Post notes that an estimated 80 percent of rural America is “medically underserved.” Rural areas account for 20 percent for the nation’s population but only 10 percent of the doctors. Over the next decade, the number of rural doctors is expected to decline by 23 percent.
Hospitals are also closing in small towns as healthcare companies consolidate services. Between 2010 and 2017, 120 rural hospitals shut their doors. People who live in places without large medical facilities such as Fort Scott, Kansas, have had to adapt by relying on healthcare centers and private physicians to provide medical care they used to receive at their hospital.
This lack of services has its consequences.
A 2019 report by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) stated that people living in rural areas face a higher risk than their urban counterparts of dying from heart disease, cancer, stroke, lower respiratory illness and unintentional injuries.
This trend was noticeable in 2020 during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The disease began to sweep through areas of the Midwest in late summer and experts began to express concerns about the lack of healthcare services to take care of people with the illness.
Part of the reason for the higher mortality rates in general is personal health. People who live in rural areas are more likely to smoke and drink alcohol as well as be overweight and have more limited access to healthy foods.
Combining that with a lack of quality medical care is a worrisome recipe.
The sparsely populated regions of Texas are prime examples of such underserved communities.
The Post reports that more than half of Texas’ 254 counties have no general surgeon and 121 counties have no medical specialists. In addition, 35 Texas counties have no doctor at all.
Finally, rural physicians are older than their urban counterparts. Half of rural doctors are over the age of 50 and more than a quarter are older than 60.
Garber, now 70, checks all these boxes.
The good doctor has practiced rural medicine for more than 40 years. He told the Post he came to Van Horn a decade ago for better pay as well as an adventure at the end of his career. He also said he felt his work was more essential here than it would be in other places.
Cummings was one of only 2 percent of med grads that year who wanted to practice in rural areas. For that reason, he was the subject of an intense bidding war between small town medical centers. Culberson finally grabbed him by offering a three-year contract that began with an annual salary of $300,000, about 50 percent more than Cummings would have earned in a larger city.
Van Horn was in the news in July 2021 when Amazon founder Jeff Bezos and three other cosmic travelers rocketed into the fringes of outer space in Bezos’ Blue Origin spacecraft. The capsule soared 60 miles above Earth and safely landed in a remote area near Van Horn. Bezos’ space research and exploration base is in a facility 25 miles outside of the small town. The July 2021 mission brought some tourism to Van Horn and local officials hope that future launches will do the same.
Perusing the Permian Basin
We stay on Interstate 10 for another half-hour before we jump on Interstate 20 and head in a northeasterly direction.
We are now driving into the heart of the Permian Basin, an area of western Texas and southern New Mexico that is 250 miles wide and 300 miles long. A total of 75,000 square miles.
There are more than 7,000 oil and natural gas fields here. The basin accounts for one-third of oil production in the United States and about 15 percent of the country’s natural gas output. The basin is partly responsible for the United States now being the world’s largest producer of crude oil with about 20 percent of the global share of production.
These fields have been providing oil since the 1920s, but production has ramped up in recent years. The basin’s output reached an average of 3.9 million barrels of petroleum a day in 2019, making it the second most productive oil region in the world, behind only the famed Ghawar field in Saudi Arabia.
In 2019, oil rigs were quickly erected and camps seem to pop up almost overnight to house oil industry workers who were earning six-figure salaries.
There’s plenty more oil left in the Permian sedimentary basin, too. An estimate in 2018 stated that there may still be 46 billion barrels of petroleum crude underground, a lot more than the 30 billion barrels that have recovered since the fields opened 100 years ago.
During the recent boom years, the expanding oil industry helped beef up the economy and raise tax revenues all along the I-20 corridor.
All this production did increase air pollution through much of western Texas. It also intensified the debate over the nation’s dependence on oil and its effects on climate change. Some local residents said crime and drug abuse had increased due to the makeshift housing camps. Others complain their once rural roads were being overrun with trucks and tankers.
In reaction, oil companies in 2018 pledged $100 million to improve the infrastructure in the towns of the Permian Basin.
Industry officials, though, were predicting in January that the Permian Basin could rebound to near-record production levels by the end of 2021.
That expectation was diminished the following month when Texas’ cold snap and power outages significantly reduced the Permian Basin’s output.
There are also concerns now that new federal oil leasing and permitting restrictions could further impact oil production here.
However, by mid-April, oil and gas production in the Permian Basin had reached near the levels before the pandemic.
Our first stop in the basin is the town of Pecos.
Agriculture has been a mainstay of the economy with cotton, onions and cantaloupes.
The cantaloupes, in fact, were Pecos’ most famous crop for quite a while. There were grown in gardens in the 1880s and reportedly had a distinct flavor.
Other families began cultivating them, too. At one point, there were 2,000 acres of cantaloupes planted annually in Pecos.
The local economy today is driven by agriculture, ranching and, of course, oil and natural gas.
The oil boom reverberated in Pecos in recent years, causing a housing crunch that forced field workers to find places to live in hotels and recreational vehicles. On the plus side, city officials say it doubled sales tax revenue between 2016 and 2018.
In 2020, however, Pecos’ economy suffered along with other Permian Basin towns when the COVID-19 pandemic hit. Local officials are hoping for a comeback this year.
Pecos will also be one of the many towns in Texas asked to house some of the unaccompanied migrant children streaming into the southern part of the state. In early April, about 500 teenage migrants are scheduled to arrive at the Target Lodge Pecos North ICF for a 35-day stay. In late May, there were 1,500 children being housed at the encampment. More than 600 teens had been processed through the facility and 673 teens have been reunited with family members or sponsors in the United States.
Pecos does have one claim to fame, although it’s disputed. City officials say the town held the world’s first rodeo on July 4, 1883. Several other towns across the United States say they actually had rodeos before then.
Nonetheless, Pecos is home to the Texas Rodeo Hall of Fame, located in the old train depot. It contains exhibits on bronco busters, calf ropers and barrel rollers, among others. There’s also a West of the Pecos Museum that details the history of the town, which actually was east of the Pecos at one time.
We hop back onto Interstate 20 east and in an hour we arrive in Odessa.
It’s a town some people might know from the book “Friday Night Lights” and the movie and television series of the same name that detailed the 1988 football season at Permian High School as well as the spectacle of high school sports in west Texas.
Despite the COVID-19 pandemic, high school football played on last fall with safety protocols imposed by the league. Spectators were allowed in the stands but only at 50 percent capacity. For those who weren’t able to attend, the league approved the live televised broadcast of Friday night high school games.
Perhaps the only thing bigger in Odessa than high school football is oil.
The town was founded in 1881 as a water stop and cattle shipping point on the Texas and Pacific Railway. It may have obtained its name from railroad workers who thought the area reminded of them of their hometown of Odessa, Russia.
The community plodded along until oil was discovered in 1926. Odessa quickly grew from 750 people in 1925 to 5,000 residents in 1929. During that year, more petroleum was unearthed in Penn Field and in 1930 another large deposit was uncovered at Cowden Field.
In World War Two, the demand for oil grew as did the chemical industry. Odessa expanded to 10,000 residents and developed into the world’s largest inland petrochemical center. In 1957, the Odessa Petrochemical Complex became the nation’s first privately funded, fully integrated plant for synthetic rubber manufacturing, using waste products from oil and natural gas to make rubber.
Today, the city has expanded to 123,000 residents, a population that is 59 percent Hispanic and 31 percent white. The median age is 31 years.
The biggest industries in town remain petroleum processing and oil field supplies.
The oil industry here has followed a “boom and bust” cycle every decade since the 1920s.
In 2019, it looked like the latest upsurge was going to last for years. Then, the COVID-19 economic downturn in 2020 stopped the industry in its tracks. During the last six months of 2020, Odessa had the highest unemployment rate in Texas.
As with other Permian Basin towns, local officials are hoping for a comeback in 2021.
There’s also the Notrees Windpower complex owned by Duke Energy outside of town that began operations in 2009 with 95 turbines producing 153 megawatts of power, enough to light up 46,000 homes.
A new solar energy plant owned by Occidental opened on 120 acres near Odessa in 2019. Its 174,000 photovoltaic panels can generate 16 megawatts of electricity. It will be primarily used to power Occidental’s oil and gas operations.
In August 2020, a 500-megawatt solar energy plant opened in the region. The Enel Green Power facility will provide power to companies such as Clorox and Mondelez. The plant is the largest solar project right now in Texas.
The two sites are among a number of new solar energy facilities being built in sunny Texas, most of them in the Permian Basin.
Our first stop downtown Odessa is the Ben Jack Rabbit statue at 8th Street and Sam Houston Avenue. The 8-foot monument was built in 1962 to commemorate a rabbit roping event that took place during the Odessa Rodeo in 1932 and 1933. The competition was revived in 1977, but it was cancelled in 1978 after the Humane Society obtained a court order to permanently stop the event on the grounds it was cruel to the hares that were being lassoed.
A little farther east is the University of Texas Permian Basin campus. The college has a Stonehenge replica that was built in six weeks in 2004 by stoneworkers Connie and Brenda Edwards. It consists of 19-foot-tall limestone slabs that weigh 20 tons each. It’s designed to be a teaching tool as well as a tourist attraction.
The Presidential Archives and Leadership Library is also on campus. It was built after President John Kennedy was assassinated in 1963 and moved to its current location in 2002. It’s the only museum in the United States that specifically honors the office of the presidency.
On the way out of town, you can stop by the Chris Kyle Memorial Plaza.
This 2,800-square-foot site was unveiled in 2016 as a remembrance to Kyle, who was born in Odessa in 1974 and was killed by a former Marine he was trying to help at a gun range in 2013. Kyle’s life story was told in the 2014 movie, “American Sniper,” starring Bradley Cooper.
The plaza contains a bronze statue of Kyle as well as memorial walls of polished black granite.
We exit the plaza on Highway 191, renamed the Chris Kyle Memorial Highway, on our way back to Interstate 20.
We’re only on the freeway for a half-hour when we see the skyline of our next destination.
Like Odessa, Midland was founded in 1881 on the Texas and Pacific Railroad line. It was designated as the midpoint between El Paso and Fort Worth. That, in fact, is the origin of the town’s name.
Midland quickly developed into one of the most important cattle shipping centers in Texas.
In 1923, its future changed when oil was discovered in two nearby locales. The city developed into the administrative center of the west Texas oil industry. By 1929, there were 36 oil companies with offices in town. By 1950, that had grown to 215 companies.
Like Odessa, Midland has gone through the boom and bust cycles of being an oil town. Demand was high in the 1920s and then declined in the 1930s. It rose again during World War Two in the 1940s and through the 1950s. There was a decline in the 1960s, but then another boom during the Arab oil embargo of the 1970s.
In recent years, Midland and Odessa have benefitted from an increase in oil being extracted from shale deposits. This higher quality oil is found between layers of shale rock. The rock must be fractured to get to the oil, a process known as fracking. Shale oil accounts for about a third of onshore oil production in the continental United States. This type of oil has helped the United States become energy independent, but it also has raised a number of environmental concerns, not the least of which are potential contamination of drinking water as well as the possibility of increased earthquake activity.
The oil boom that accompanied the fracking had sparked Midland’s economy.
Then, like other towns in the Permian Basin, Midland was struck by the 2020 economic downturn caused by COVID-19.
The days of 30 percent annual increases in retail sales also disappeared last year.
There are also concerns about restrictions that might be placed on fracking in the near future by the Biden administration.
Despite the ups and downs of the oil industry, the city does pay homage to it at the Permian Basin Petroleum Museum. The 40,000-square-foot facility has exhibits that include the science behind the 230 million years of oil formation as well as the history of oil exploration in western Texas.
Midland also has a cattle industry that helps drive the economy. It sits at the hub of a 12-county ranching area known for its Hereford cattle.
In addition, it has a telecommunications sector as well as product distribution centers.
Midland is also another Texas city finding itself in the middle of the border crossing debate.
It’s the site of the Cotton Logistic Man Camp, where more than 450 migrant children were being housed in March. The water at the camp was good only for washing clothes and flushing toilets, so federal authorities provided the children with water bottles. In addition, 60 of the children had tested positive for COVID-19, so no other children were being brought here. This isn’t the only facility this problem. Of the 44 shelters housing children in Texas in March, 37 had reported positive COVID-19 tests. In all, more than 260 children had tested positive.
Before we leave town, there are two houses in Midland worth noting.
One is the George W. Bush Childhood Home on Ohio Avenue. The 1,400-square-foot house was built in 1939. Former President George H. W. Bush and his wife, Barbara, relocated to Midland in 1948 when Bush went to work in the oil industry. They moved into the Ohio Avenue home in 1951. Former President George W. Bush lived there from the time he was 5 until he was in high school. The home today is virtually unchanged from how it was in 1956.
The other house is a nondescript residence in the Permian Estates subdivision.
What happened to an 18-month-old old girl there on Oct. 14, 1987, gripped the nation for almost three days.
Jessica McClure was playing with four other children in the back yard of her aunt’s home where her aunt and mother operated a daycare operation. Somehow, Jessica fell headfirst into an 8-inch-wide well and ended up 22 feet underground.
A crew of 16 rescuers worked nonstop to free the little girl, finally lifting her from the narrow hole 58 hours after she fell in.
CNN, the only 24-hour news network at the time, covered the event live from start to finish. It was only the network’s second “wall to wall” coverage of an ongoing event. The first was the Challenger space shuttle explosion in 1986. Media analysts credit the “Baby Jessica rescue” with helping usher in our country’s 24-hour news cycle.
Jessica Morales is now 35 years old. She’s married with two children. She worked for a while as an assistant to a special education teacher in Midland but now is a stay-at-home mom. She lives two miles from her aunt’s old house.
In 2011 when she turned 25, Jessica collected $800,000 from a trust fund set up by donations after the rescue. She used the money to buy her family’s current home, purchase two new cars and help her father start a tractor rental business.
Jessica has no memory of the 1987 event, but she does bear a faint scar on her forehead from her face rubbing against the interior of the pipe during her rescue.
There is a plaque at the Midland Civic Center in recognition of the 1987 rescue.
The home in Permian Estates is still there. So is the well. But it now has a cap on top with an inscription that reads “For Jessica 10-16-87 With Love From All of Us.”
Other well-known folks from Midland include actor Woody Harrelson, who was born here in 1961 and spent the early part of his childhood here.
Heading In To the Wind
As we continue northeast on Interstate 20, we start to see the transition.
Oil rigs still dot the landscape but so do tall windmills with blades slowly circulating.
We’re starting to enter one of the prime areas for Texas wind energy.
The Lone Star State produces 28,000 megawatts of wind power generated by 15,000 turbines. That’s number one in the country, far ahead of second place Iowa’s 10,000 megawatts. Texas now gets more of its electricity from wind than it does from coal.
The wind energy industry in Texas started to grow in the early 2000s under then-Governor Rick Perry. The state invested $7 billion to create a transmission system to bring renewable energy to Texas cities. The state also has fewer regulations and more tax incentives for the wind industry. During Perry’s tenure, the state’s wind power surged from 116 megawatts to 11,000 megawatts.
There doesn’t seem to be any slowdown coming either. Last year, Texas added another 2,000 megawatts of wind energy generating capacity.
About 40 minutes out of Midland, we cruise past the town of Big Spring.
The town got its start by taking advantage of another natural resource.
The spring the community is named after was a watering hole for prehistoric animals such as mastodons and saber-toothed tigers.
Native American tribes settled near the spring in later centuries before Spanish explorers passed through. The region was an important trade center for the Comanche. A U.S. expedition checked out the area in 1849 and marked it as a campsite for the Overland Trail to California.
The military was also a large employer after World War Two. Webb Air Force Base was activated in 1951 and served as a pilot training center. It was an integral part of the town until it was decommissioned in 1977. The property is now the Big Spring Industrial Park.
Another hour east on Interstate 20 and we’re approaching the community of Roscoe.
In the distance just south of town, you can see the turbines of the Roscoe Wind Farm.
The facility, which has been operating since 2009, has 627 turbines that generate 781 megawatts of electricity, enough for 265,000 homes.
The turbines range in height from 350 feet to 415 feet and are installed 900 feet apart.
Like Midland, Odessa and other towns along our route today, Roscoe germinated from the laying of the Texas and Pacific Railroad tracks in the early 1880s. In 1894, a cattle pen was relocated here, spurring economic activity.
In 1908, the Roscoe, Snyder and Pacific Railroad began operating. It consisted of 50 miles of track between Roscoe and Fluvanna, a town of less than 200 people that was created for the purpose of being the northern terminus for the small railroad. The train service was profitable for decades as a bridge between larger railroads. Passenger service was discontinued in 1953 and freight traffic was halted in the 1970s. The tracks were torn up in 1984.
Today, Roscoe’s economy relies on transportations services, warehousing, construction and, of course, wind power.
There’s also the Plowboy Mudbog in the summer, where 70 to 80 trucks compete by sloshing around in, yes, mud to raise money for youth baseball programs.
Our final destination for today is just eight miles up Interstate 20.
Like Big Spring and Roscoe, the town of Sweetwater sits in the middle of a burgeoning wind industry.
Nolan County, which includes Sweetwater and Roscoe, has more than 1,400 turbines with a combined capacity of more than 2,300 megawatts.
Sweetwater has a varied history.
The Kiowa were among the tribes that set up camps here because of the “sweet water” in the springs. The first European settlers arrived in the 1870s to provide services for buffalo hunters. The town was also along the lines of the Texas and Pacific Railroad. It also was a telegraph center at one point.
The city built four lakes between 1898 and 1952 to provide water sources for the railroads. In return, those companies have provided steady payrolls over the years.
Gulf Refinery had operations here from 1929 to 1954. International Harvester had a factory from 1920 to 1950. About 250 production-oriented companies were operating in town in the 1970s, manufacturing everything from gypsum to clothing to cement to cotton products.
Sweetwater is also home to the National WASP World War II Museum. It’s located at Avenger Field, where members of the Women Airforce Service Pilots were trained to fly in 1943 and 1944 by famed aviator Jacqueline Cochran. They were the first women to fly military aircraft. During the war, more than 1,000 of these female pilots flew more than 60 million miles, mostly ferrying planes from factories to shipping points as well as flying damaged planes back to bases. In all, 38 of the female pilots were killed in action.
The town also has the 750-seat Sweetwater Municipal Auditorium, which was built in 1926. Over the decades, the performers have included John Philip Sousa, Fred and Adele Astaire, and even Elvis Presley, who appeared there not once but twice in 1955.
Finally, the Sweetwater Jaycees are hosts of the world’s largest rattlesnake round-up every March. The 2021 version was held in early March. The events include the rattlesnake parade, a snake eating contest and a Miss Snake Charmer Pageant.
A lot to contemplate in this town in the middle of Texas.
Tomorrow, we finish off the first week of our virtual journey by traveling through what’s known as Hill Country in Texas for some peaches and wildflowers before ending up at one of the premier cities in the Lone Star State.